Is Welfare Reform Working?

During a discussion last August of the first year of welfare "reform," a national reporter said, "It's working. The welfare rolls are down. People are getting jobs. But some of you refuse to recognize it." The same month the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a Milwaukee woman, Oral Caples, who had left the rolls for a job that paid more than welfare.

But since then Oral Caples has lost her job. It was not possible last August to judge the full impact of the dramatic changes, nor is it possible now—19 months after President Clinton "ended welfare as we know it" in August 1996.

For one thing, most states are just beginning to implement their new welfare system. Most recipients have not reached the time limit on welfare benefits, which is five years in a lifetime—and states can end them sooner. For another, the booming economy and the lowest unemployment in 24 years have made it easier for people to find jobs.

Government surpluses in 49 states make it possible to offer training and help with child care and transportation, essential ingredients in making a successful transition to work. But a recent survey by the Tufts Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy shows that while all states seem to be doing more to increase child care, most are spending less than before to help welfare recipients prepare for work. In most states the new welfare plans will make poor families less economically secure.

The welfare rolls are down, dropping an estimated two million last year. About 50 percent, surveys suggest, moved from welfare to jobs—not much different from the 1980s when 46 percent of those who left welfare did so to take jobs. Others have left because they could not handle or understand the new rules. Some have been erroneously penalized. More than half of those thrown off welfare have been reinstated on appeal.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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